Remember when Mike and I visited my parents and I came back home all bummed about the fact that we didn’t have our own compost pile? That was just one year ago, but it seems like ancient history. So much has happened since then…we got married, we moved out of the city and into the woods, and, we started our first compost pile!!
We’re so excited about the fact that we can finally compost. Cooking and eating together is even more enjoyable now because we no longer have to endure the awkward moment after every meal when we solemnly scrape our food scraps into the trash. I always dreaded that moment.
It was very rewarding to scrape those scraps into our shiny new compost bucket for the first time. However, almost immediately Mike and I realized we don’t know the first thing about composting. I could just Google it and read a bunch of boring science…or, I could call upon a good friend of ours who happens to be a serious composter.
Jared is a husband, father, bocce champion, blogger, and avid gardener. His family grows everything from strawberries to squash in their hill-top garden, and his two young daughters are growing up the best way kids can- with their hands in the dirt. He has taken time to educate us on the fundamentals of composting here on the blog. Thank you so much, Jared!
My favorite chore growing up was mowing the lawn. I sat on the front step on Saturday mornings as the sun slowly burned the dew off the grass, and as soon as the Colorado landscape went dry, I pulled the cord on our family’s old Toro and I made our lawn look like the outfield grass where the Rockies played. I took a lot of pride in that chore, and if I wasn’t satisfied with how our lawn looked, I fixed it. Sometimes the wheels from the mower pressed the grass down without cutting it, and the next day, when the grass had straightened, there were narrow rows of long, messy grass where the wheels had trod. I hated this. Those unkempt strips of grass tormented me. On Sunday afternoons I could be found on my knees in the grass, pulling those uncut strips down to size with my bare hands. It was an obsession. And to this day I can’t help but notice when a lawn has been sloppily tended.
There were other things too. I would reset the Nintendo no matter how far into my Tecmo Super Bowl football season if I lost a game or if Barry Sanders didn’t rush for 100 yards (yah, I was always the Lions). And after a snowfall, nobody was allowed to walk in the part of the yard visible from my bedroom window. I didn’t want to see footprints or exposed grass. I needed to gaze out over a smooth, pristine blanket of white. It was an obsession.
Why do you care? You probably don’t. But I tell you this to give you an idea of why I can sometimes be found digging through my own trash looking for potato peels or apple cores that may have gotten thrown out within the chaos of trying to clean the kitchen before our two-year-old climbs her little sister’s hi-chair and force-feeds her a biter biscuit. Composting has become a bit of an obsession of mine, and it bothers me when I see a luscious piece of organic scrap being truly wasted in the trash. So I shake out my rags over the compost can, and I empty the sink-trap the same way, and sometimes I paw through our trash looking for those precious, forgotten kitchen scraps. That’s just how it is now.
So I warn you now, before you read any further, if you are anything like me and tend to get carried away over certain fascinations, composting may become an obsession. A worthy and fun and rewarding obsession, but one that may have you chasing the garbage truck down the road because you just realized you accidentally dumped all your watermelon rinds in the trash the previous night. The horror! The horror!
With that being said, here’s an overview of some basic composting guidelines which should serve as a helpful starting place for reducing waste and generating healthy soil for your garden or houseplants.
What is compost?
I’ll spare you the scientific details and give you the gist of it: Compost is the nutrient rich dirt that’s produced when organic material undergoes the natural decomposition process.
We all paid attention in middle-school science class, we know that any material that was once alive, if left outside long enough, will break down and become dirt. And we’ve seen the cool Sun Chips commercials where the bag decomposes in time-lapse. Pretty nifty. What composting does, however, is expedite and intensify that natural process by combining a healthy mix of organic materials into a single system — perhaps a pile in your backyard, a large bin in your garden, or a crate on your porch. It’s really that simple.
What kind of stuff is compost-able?
The short answer: Anything that was once alive.
This is what amazes people when they start composting – they can’t believe how much stuff can actually be composted. The internet is full of these lists so I won’t offer an extensive summary here, but some of the more common items are: fruit and vegetable scraps; most paper products (including coffee filters, brown bags, egg cartons, etc.); most baked goods (yah, those burned cookies should go in the compost, not the trash); plant waste (decorative flowers, wreaths, leaves, grass-clippings); and even clothing scraps (cotton, wool, silk).
In the majority of households, the things that can’t be composted should be rather obvious: glass, metal, plastic, rubber (although, latex can). Also, I would avoid heavily soiled paper products like pizza boxes. And as far as food goes, meats and dairy aren’t good – they take a long time to decompose and tend to attract the wrong kinds of pests.
So that’s the general breakdown between compostables and non-compostables. And while that seems pretty simple, there are a few other things to consider.
First, healthy compost requires a good mix of “green” (nitrogen) and “brown” (carbon) materials. “Brown materials” are those that are woody – things like leaves, paper, dry stems, dead grass and hay. “Green” materials include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, fresh flowers, green grass, and egg shells. Again, you can find more extensive lists elsewhere, but as a guiding concept, those more juicy, luscious scraps tend to be nitrogen based, while the dry, crinkly scraps tend to be carbon based. An even balance of both types of materials is needed for healthy compost.
I encourage you not to let this “green” and “brown” balance intimidate you. After a little experience with your own compost and the type of waste generated in your home, keeping a healthy mix will become intuitive. You don’t need to weigh and measure your greens and browns or run to the internet every time you come across some material you don’t know how to classify. There is no exact science, and natural processes like composting tend to take care of themselves. In general, if your compost pile looks like a heap of dead twigs, you need to add more juicy “greens.” If your compost looks like a pile of wet mush and it smells like ammonia, it’s time to add some “browns.” So really, it’s not all that complex; just be willing to experiment and adjust.
But we still need to consider a few other things when developing compost and deciding how to use the waste generated in our homes – we need to ask the question: What is the best use of this “waste” item?
The driving consideration in our homes shouldn’t necessarily be whether or not something is compostable, but what’s the best use of any given item that we are throwing out. So for this consideration, I offer four ways of categorizing the discarded materials in our homes.
The first question regarding anything we are throwing out should be, can this item be reused? This applies to the usual things like plastic bottles, yogurt tubs, baggies, and jars, but even compostable items should first be considered for potential re-use. Different sorts of paper products and fabrics can be used in all sorts of creative ways, and so for materials like these I would suggest re-use rather than compost.
Many compostable materials cannot and should not be reused, so once we’ve addressed that first consideration we should ask, is this material good for my compost? Obviously, if it’s not compostable material then the answer is no. But even with compostable materials, not all are good for your compost at all times. Like I’ve said, compost needs a good balance of “green” and “brown,” so trying to compost your whole Sunday paper with only an apple core and carrot stick probably isn’t going to work.
Since most of our households do tend to produce a lot more “brown” material than “green,” the next best thing is to recycle. Thus our third consideration is, can this material be recycled? Most recycling services can handle a variety of paper products, so most of those “browns” that would dry up your compost can simply be recycled. Familiarize yourself with your recycling service and take advantage.
And lastly, if your waste material can’t be re-used, composted, or recycled, it may just have to go in the trash. But if composting becomes as exciting for you as it is for me, you could find yourself digging through that trash, making sure all your marvelous kitchen scraps find their rightful resting place, where they can someday become the soil that nourishes the peas and carrots that nourish you.
I hope this serves as a helpful introduction to the work of composting. These tips should be enough to get you started, even if it means simply throwing your scraps in a bucket in the kitchen for the time being. And please join us for my next post as we discuss in more detail the management and use of compost throughout the gardening cycle.